Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.
Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.
The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities.
Raison d’être of a Thriller
So what are thrillers for? Thrillers are first and foremost entertaining. Thrillers heighten the audience’s moods, producing anticipation/ultra-heightened expectation, surprise, anxiety and terror. Thrillers tend to be adrenaline raising, gritty and fast paced.
Thrillers are simultaneously terrifying and reassuring because the villain almost always gets killed or arrested. Thrillers uphold surprisingly conservative values, but only if you watch them right until the end. The thriller is basically a Cautionary Tale For Adults.
Thriller and Genre
Thrillers are typically the most emotional of the suspense genres. Thrillers focus on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character as they face some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.”
The thriller shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail. Thrillers emphasise the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.
Thrillers have an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.
Primary THRILLER Sub-genres
Different people divide thrillers differently. Here’s how Shawn Coyne divvies them up. The nice thing about Shawn Coyne’s taxonomy is that any thriller can be made to fit into at least one of his categories:
- SERIAL KILLER THRILLER — About police officers doing their jobs (Silence of the Lambs)
- LEGAL THRILLER — About lawyers doing their jobs (A lot of John Grisham novels)
- MEDICAL THRILLER — About doctors doing their jobs
- MILITARY THRILLER — About army personnel doing their jobs
- POLITICAL THRILLER — About politicians doing their jobs (The Killing is an interesting blend of political and serial killer thriller). Political thrillers are not as popular with audiences.
- JOURNALISM/CONSPIRACY THRILLER — About journalists doing their jobs
- PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER — These emphasise the unstable psychological and emotional states of their main characters. There are similarities to Gothic and detective fiction:
- A dissolving sense of reality.
- The setting is usually domesticated.
- The main characters are usually obsessed, tortured or sociopathic.
- Unreliable narratives are common. e.g. Psycho, Homeland, pretty much everything by Stephen King, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith.
- FINANCIAL THRILLER — about investors doing their jobs
- ESPIONAGE THRILLER — About spies doing their jobs (The Americans)
- WOMAN IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable woman who must find her way out of a life and death situation
- CHILD IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable parent (usually a woman) who must risk her life to save her child
- HITCHCOCK THRILLER — If you’re using many of the same techniques used by Hitchcock, you’re probably writing a Hitchcock thriller. Techniques include: the Macguffin as inciting incident, the sense that you’re a voyeur into someone’s private life, the sense of psychological unease running throughout, and the false ending (or ‘climactic plot twist’).
Woven through all and any of these, there might be a romantic hook. (Despite using the term, I have a problem with the concept of subplot.) Often, in any of the suspense genres, there’s a romance between a couple which gets ‘suspended’ (amping up the romantic suspense along with the life and death suspense) due to more pressing issues relating to the action, adventure or crime situation of the film, e.g. Speed.
CHECKLIST FOR THRILLERS
Are you writing a thriller or a mystery?
The mystery genre is very wide and encompasses many other genres. In a thriller, the nature of the mystery is quite specific: In creating thrillers, writers do not have to outsmart the reader (as they do in a straight, Agatha Christie style mystery story). In a thriller mystery, the characters have to outsmart each other.
Are you writing thriller or detective genre?
As in the detective genre, thriller involves detection, but in a thriller there are typically far fewer suspects. Just one really terrible villain, usually.
ARE YOU WRITING THRILLER OR HORROR?
In a thriller, the worst that could happen to your main character is death. In horror, the worst that could happen is ‘a fate worse than death‘. The horror genre is heavily based on Christian symbolism, and often, the ‘worse than death’ consequence is damnation, or a version thereof.
In horror, the opponent is way more powerful than the hero. The hero really stands no chance. The opponent is not just a monstrous ‘villain’ — it’s an actual monster, or supernatural. (They might have the body of a human, but they’re not human.)
In horror, the opponent commits an escalating series of crimes whereas in a thriller there might be just one big crime. In horror, the opponent is on a path of destruction and devastation, whereas the villain in a thriller has a logical (if not empathetic) human reason for wanting the hero dead.
Compared to other genres, the audience doesn’t mind the storyteller being really obvious about their ‘manipulation’ of emotion in the audience:
It’s not often a thriller keeps me wound up as well as ‘Headhunters’ did. I knew I was being manipulated and didn’t care. It was a pleasure to see how well it was being done.Roger Ebert
For comparison, Roger Ebert thinks quite differently about horror viewers:
Horror fans are a particular breed. They analyze films with such detail and expertise that I am reminded of the Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye, who approached literature with similar archetypal analysis.Roger Ebert
In movie marketing, the term ‘thriller’ is applied where marketers see fit, rather than as an objective description of a story based on measurable parameters. Instead we might draw any distinction between ‘thriller’ and ‘horror’ based on the typical audience response rather than on the story itself.
STORYWORLD OF A THRILLER
- Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the arena the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.
- The setting is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s shortcoming — when it exists — and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
- Thrillers show society as dark, corrupt and dangerous.
- The setting is atmospheric — the writer gives plenty of detail. Writers also use tricks to make the setting feel like it’s ‘alive’. If you want to know more about those tricks, see: How Can Setting Be A Character?
PLOT AND CHARACTER WEB OF A THRILLER
- A life and death situation.
- There’s probably a single main character.
- The inciting incident will be your main character’s opponent.
- This devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one to come. (This is why serial killer thrillers are so popular — we know there will be another one.)
- A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
- The hero has to solve the puzzle of overcoming the villain, getting one step ahead.
- Basically, the main character is saving their own life and probably others’ lives by escaping from a person who wants to kill them.
- Make use of a common storytelling technique known as The Shadow In The Hero.
Shadows are villains in the story. They exist to create threat and conflict, and to give the hero something to struggle against. Like many of the other archetypes, shadows do not have to be characters specifically – the dark side of the force is just as much a shadow for Luke as Darth Vader is.
The shadow is especially effective if it mirrors the hero in some way. It shows the audience the twisted person the hero could become if they head down the wrong path, and highlights the hero’s internal struggle. This, in turn, makes the hero’s success more meaningful. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, right after Luke had ignored Yoda’s advice, makes the dark side feel more threatening.
- The ‘main character’ will be your typical hero, or ‘the character the audience roots for’. Using terminology proposed by Northrop Frye, they may at first appear to be low mimetic, but then they rise to an incredible challenge and prove themselves high mimetic, or even almost superhero. This allows an audience the wish fulfilment fantasy as we imagine that we, too, might rise to any challenge to save lives.
- The difference between a hero and a villain: heroes wants to save themselves, others and the world, but villains are motivated by power.
In the simple thriller form the opponent is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community. More often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.
John Yorke, Into The Woods
Tears for Fears wrote a song about your typical desire of a villain. https://youtu.be/U4zA0xnBEJU
A Difference Between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Thrillers
This is from an episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast.
Internally Motivated Thrillers
This is really weird when it’s first pointed out (by the Narrative Breakdown podcast, for me), but there’s a type of thriller which maps exactly onto the structure of comedy.
Both thrillers and comedy relies on the ‘mask’. I have written an entire post about Masks in Storytelling.
Matt Bird calls this the Transgression, Noir, or Wrong-Man Thriller. Hitchcock was a fan of these. Its structure looks like this:
- Discontent — someone is unhappy about something
- Transgression with a mask — peculiar to comedy and thrillers
- Transgression without a mask — midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
- Dealing with consequences
- Spiritual Crisis — happens in almost every story
- Growth Without a Mask
As you’ll have noticed, this is an ‘internal’ subgenre because it starts with the psychological shortcoming of the hero — the hero’s ‘discontent’. The standout Transgression Thriller is Double Indemnity, from the 1940s.
Externally Motivated Thrillers
This type of thriller is often called the Conspiracy Thriller. (In The Narrative Breakdown podcast this starts at 17.50.)
- Injustice (externally motivated)
- Overconfident Investigation Begins
- Midpoint Disaster
- Overconfident Investigative Crusade
- Midpoint Disaster
- A Series of Betrayals (again, these are external to the hero’s psychology)
- Revelation — the conspiracy is exposed or the mystery is solved.
The standout conspiracy thriller is The Maltese Falcon (also from the 1940s). Other examples include: L.A. Confidential, Crimson Tide, All the President’s Men, China Town.
Other Writing Techniques Typically Employed In Thrillers
- A MacGuffin often begins the plot (The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. — Shawn Coyne.) Hitchcock invented the word. If you’ve started with a McGuffin, you may be writing a Hitchcock Thriller.
- The writer will make use of techniques like reveals.
- Narrative drive — Characters and setting serve the pace of the narrative rather than the other way round. You still need to texture the pace. Even fast-paced stories need down moments.
- Deferment. The reader wants to know what happens next but don’t tell them right away. Withhold information for as long as possible without it seeming contrived.
- In thriller novels, balance on the page tends to be: lots of dialogue plus the occasional two-inch paragraph of narration. For more on that distinction, see Parts of Prose.
- Ticking Clock technique is most common in action genres (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen). There are many variations on the ticking clock. Panic Room invents a variation in which the daughter’s watch is a number showing her blood sugar levels. The specifics are meaningless unless you’re familiar with Type 1 diabetes, but any audience gets the idea. The watch is shown in close up when the daughter rolls over to settle down to sleep.
Thrillers Written From The Villain’s Point Of View
Most thrillers are told from the hero’s point of view, but some are told from the point of view of the villain.
- The whole Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith is an example of this kind of thriller. Tom Ripley is our main character who both solves murders and murders his own people.
- There’s an Agatha Christie book which does this. (She tried it, but didn’t stick with it.)
- Dexter — the TV show diverged a lot from the books. He only kills criminals who have gotten away with things. It’s an interesting reverse because we know who’s committed the crime. It’s the process of him working backwards from that and planning the kill.
- 20 Books With Villain Protagonists from Bustle
Thrillers and Feminism
A lot of [thrillers] have the classic “male cop investigating murdered woman” plot. […] When the women aren’t being “brutally murdered” and raped, they sometimes get to be the main characters. […]
We need to start describing characters and blurbing books better. Seriously. In 100% of books with male and female cops/detectives as co-protagonists, the woman occurs second in the description as such: “Man, with Woman by his side”, or “Man, teamed with Woman”. Karin Slaughter’s Triptych features this gem: “Male veteran cop and Female beautiful vice cop.” In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, two men set out on a mission but when “they are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department,” their team becomes “unlikely.” Sue Crafton’s M is for Malice, written by a woman and featuring women doesn’t even have GR description.
Let’s talk more about these female protagonists, which either accidentally stumble upon the murder/crime or are unlikely suspects in the plot; they are rarely formally established and celebrated cops or detectives. Sample this description I Let You Go, with a female protagonist: “Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever. Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating.” It is tough to read this, keeping in mind that this is opposed to their male counterparts, who get to be “brilliant geniuses” and “brave” and “veteran”, while women remain “lonely”, “desperate”, or at most “the first in their fields”.
I’ve mainly learned about thrillers from the following sources: